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How the 'Project X'-Riot in Haren, The Netherlands, Could Cost Facebook Dearly

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Will Facebook face tighter restrictions in the eurozone?

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Sometimes you can see an accident happen well before it actually happens.

This happened in a small Dutch suburb called Haren, in the province of Groningen. Last Friday, September 21, this wealthy "estate town" was hit by a hurricane of violence, due to a Project X-party, "fueled by Facebook (NASDAQ:FB)," gone awry.

The riot involved hundreds of extremely aggressive youngsters who were fighting with residents of Haren, demolishing cars, and looting and ruining shops. Often they did so while smiling at the cameras and documenting the party: "We're having a ball! Yeah, cool!"

Dozens of police agents and special riot control units (a.k.a., ME or Mobile Unit in The Netherlands) battled for hours to regain control over the crowd, which had gone berserk. In the end, two people were severely injured; one of them was an old man of 83, who had been beaten with a brick on his head. A few policemen were injured and four youngsters were arrested. Total damage was more than a million euro.

How did this happen?

Merthe, a typical Dutch girl-next-door, decided to organize a "sweet sixteen" party and invited her real friends via Facebook. What she did forget, however, was to tag her party as "private."

Due to the fact that Facebook – in case of a public (i.e., non-private) party – allows invited people to invite people themselves, the number of people planning to go that doomed birthday party grew by the hour. When some popular radio stations in The Netherlands heard the word on the street about the party and started to broadcast the details, the party gained momentum.

Poor Merthe, who discovered her mistake after the publicity machine started working. She informed the police and the municipality about her invitation and the unintended consequences of it. Her family, as well as the mayor of Haren, tried to convince the general public that the original birthday party was canceled and the city didn't want a Project X-party to be organized in Haren.

Alas, Merthe had, via Facebook, opened a Pandora's Box and thousands of people descended on Haren on Friday, September 21.

What started as a harmless misunderstanding ended up turning into mob violence.

The authorities, the inhabitants, and the insurance companies in Haren are trying to determine the persons liable for damage. This job will probably not be too hard since the event was well photographed and many of the rioters put more pictures and texts on social networks, including Twitter and Facebook.

Fifty people were arrested or turned themselves into the police within a few days. Who were these hooligans?

Unexpectedly, the vast majority were from the (upper-)middle-class, either with good jobs or successfully enrolled in schools, and had no previous police record at all. In other words, the unusual suspects.

Or maybe not so unexpectedly. In the eighties and nineties -- the heyday of football hooliganism in Great Britain, Germany, and The Netherlands -- researchers noticed that most football hooligans had successful day-jobs and a very good income. They went to the football games specifically to rumble and fight (with the violence aimed at the rival team's fans).

There is deep concern by The Netherlands and other countries of the European Union about Facebook's role in this Project X-party:
  • The fact that it is so easy to make a mistake like Merthe did: The tag, indicating a private party, is always switched "off" and must be switched on manually
  • The fact that such a mistake cannot be undone anymore: Pandora's Box is opened and cannot be closed
  • The fact that earlier this year Project X-parties, fueled by Facebook, took place in Germany, Australia, and the US, causing (smaller) riots and damage.
  • Facebook's silence on the matter is increasing the concern.
Therefore, I would not be surprised when the European Union within a few months announces new regulations, forcing Facebook to change its controversial settings, like the "private" party tag and compelling it to enter into dialogue with authorities.

What might be a bad omen for Facebook is the fact that the Dutch European Commissioner for Telecom and Internet Business is the no-nonsense Neelie Kroes, the former European Commissioner for Competition.

[Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Minyanvilles blog section.]
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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